The idea of a dance battle probably conjures up images of a Simon Cowell-judged TV show, an underground Bboy spot, or pom poms and cheerleading attitude in Bring It On. But what happens when you take the lessons of team dance into the workplace? Next Jump has been engaged in an interesting work experiment – split the company into four office-based teams, give them a choreographer budget, and have each compete for ‘best dance crew’ at the company’s Annual Holiday Party held in New York.
Whoa – let’s go back a second. This is an engineering company, working in the e-commerce space… dance battles, bringing in choreographers, flying the UK and San Francisco offices into the Big Apple, how did this pass? There is a method behind all of this. The idea draws parallels from the marines’ training; they found that marines who suffered together in training created a bond which resulted in a higher willingness to die for each other on the battle field. The 8 hours a week which we spent a week in ‘training’ is not exactly bootcamp, but it does bring a level of esprit de corps into the office that can’t be found in most corporate team building exercises.
The other point is that none of us are actual dancers (except Jon from our San Francisco office, who has a body made of rubber). Because it’s not something we do professionally, we’re bound to look crazy doing it, but it only exposes a very commendable personal quality – knowing how to laugh at yourself. For us, dancing is the corporate equivalent of suffering together.
There are literally hundreds of team-building exercises that employers can invest in, but more often than not, these take place over one afternoon or one day, with the benefits short-lived. But with dancing, this was a four-week long process - long enough for the benefits to fully cement - and which brought to the forefront lateral thinking skills that are often overlooked in the regular working day. All while still being fun enough to enjoy and engage with. Call it a dance battle – or call it an innovative employee engagement idea.
OK, seems interesting – how does this actually work? Everyone is invited to submit dance ideas, from which each office votes in dance captains. Captains have supporting ‘right-hand’ and ‘left-hand’ roles and each team puts together three one-minute routines. Senior management are key participants, and, even not wanting to perform in the final dance, all employees are involved somehow – whether that’s taking part in rehearsals or actively giving feedback and ideas.
So has this experiment worked? I think this is a pretty good indication: this blog is being written on the plane to NYC from London, and this week, people are not talking about the open bar at the party on Friday night, the bright lights of Times Square, or even the burgers at Shake Shack. They’re talking about ‘bringing it’.
Over the past few weeks, we’ve learnt the art of patience, cooperation, change, compromise, humility, discipline and trust. And the result has been astounding. As captains for the London office, it was amazing to see people so engaged – meaning we didn’t have to ‘captain’ anything. People were genuinely having fun, and after a 10-hour work day, it was normal to practice until 9pm – and then still WANT to be around each other long enough to go out for dinner together afterwards.
The evening after our first session, we spontaneously got up to practice our moves, using the large windows at the end of the office as a mirror. As we progressed, it was not uncommon to see people dancing down the office on their way to the printers, or showing their business clients the dance moves in meetings. It was also a great way to really bring us together with our newer employees. We discovered we have a star dancer in Chris, new in our Merchant Team, who had to be told at one point to ‘turn the sexy down’ as it was becoming a distraction. We had Andreas, an engineer, show us some unexpected basketball tricks. But the pivotal ‘success’ point was probably when we saw Natalie, one of our newer employees in the Customer Success Team, who had been struggling with a few of the moves, suddenly ‘get it’, and post up on Facebook: “Actually starting to enjoy the office dance off! :)” – it was the first time we really saw her come out of her shell (the second was at the New York party itself).
And then of course there was the inter-office banter. When Boston dropped their outstanding ‘Harlem Shake’ video, we responded with a preview promo of one of our dances – mimicking Psy in Gangnam Style by thrusting over our MD lying on the floor in front of the London Eye. Probably most crucial to the project’s success was having our CEO, Charlie Kim, involved in the banter as much as anyone else.
Four weeks later, with two days until the competition, success is already down – we’ve bonded in a completely unique way, to the point where, despite the outcome, we have already booked in our choreographer for an extra one-off session after we get back from the trip.
I would encourage other corporations to try this. It was always going to be a bold move to have a budget for professional dance choreographers, but in terms of return on investment, from a purely qualitative (read: human/employee) standpoint, it’s been one of the most cost-effective human capital initiatives we’ve taken part in.
Update- 2013 Dance Competition Outcome:
Winning Team: NYC
Best Dance: Boston – Boyband
Best Dance Runner Up: UK – Lights
See all the dances here